What is an Anti-hero? What makes an anti-hero an anti-hero? What is the difference between an anti-hero and an anti-villain? 

Anti-Hero Anti-Hero

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Table of contents

    You have most likely come across an anti-hero while reading but may not have noticed. Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series (1997–2007), Robin Hood from Robin Hood (1883) and Gollum from Lord of the Rings (1995) are just a few examples of anti-heroes we will look into more later.

    Anti-hero meaning in literature

    The term ‘anti-hero’ comes from the Greek language: ‘anti’ means against and ‘hero’ means a defender or protector. While anti-heroes have been present in literature since Ancient Greek drama, the term was used first at the beginning of the 1700s.

    Anti-heroes are conflicted, flawed, complex protagonists who do not have the typical virtues, values and characteristics of traditional heroes. Though their actions are noble, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they act for good reasons like conventional heroes. They have dark sides, hidden secrets and may even have a flawed moral code, but ultimately they have good intentions.

    Traditional heroes, on the other hand, have strong morals and great strength, abilities and knowledge. Often, they help others by performing actions such as physically saving them from a villain.

    Modern readers often love anti-heroes as they are characters that portray real human nature due to their flaws or difficulties in life. They are not idealistic characters but characters that readers can relate to.

    The following quote from Sirius Black highlights the qualities of an anti-hero clearly and shows how everyone has good qualities and bad qualities. However, to support the good, anti-heroes often act badly.

    We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on." Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix (2007).

    Anti-hero list of types

    The trope of the anti-hero can generally be categorised into five types:

    The ‘Classic Anti-hero’

    The Classic Anti-hero has the opposite qualities of a traditional hero. Traditional heroes are confident, brave, intelligent, skilled at fighting and often handsome. In contrast, the Classic Anti-hero is anxious, doubtful and apprehensive.

    The character arc for this type of Anti-hero follows their journey as they overcome their weakness to finally defeat the enemy. This is in contrast to the traditional hero, who would use their extraordinary abilities and skills to overcome trials.

    Danny from April Daniels' Dreadnought (2017)

    Danny is a 15-year old trans girl who struggled with her gender identity especially because of her transphobic parents. However what once was something she had to keep hidden (her desire to become a female) it later becomes her greatest strength and source of courage.

    The ‘Reluctant Knight Anti-Hero’

    This anti-hero has strong morals and knows right from wrong. However, they are very cynical and believe they are insignificant. They take action when something interests them and don’t feel the need to join a fight against the villain until they have to.

    When they do finally join, it is because they feel they can personally gain something from it or that alternatively, they will lose something if they don't.

    Doctor Who from Doctor Who (1970)

    Doctor Who does not believe he is a hero; he is sarcastic and has a temper, unlike traditional heroes. Despite this, he takes great risks to protect others when he sees that they need help.

    Anti-hero, a knight in armour on a horse, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Knights are not always the archetypal hero in stories.

    The ‘Pragmatic Anti-hero’

    Like the ‘Reluctant Knight Anti-hero’, the ‘Pragmatic Anti-hero’ does things when it serves their interest and is not willing to accept the role of ‘hero’ until they are forced to. Yet in contrast to the 'Reluctant Knight' who needs a lot of coaxing to act, the 'Pragmatic Anti-hero' is more willing jump into action if they see something wrong happening.

    This Anti-hero follows the Hero’s journey and is willing to go against their morals to do good. The ambiguity of this anti-hero comes from the fact that they are willing to break rules and moral codes if the overall outcome is good. The pragmatic anti-hero is also a realist.

    Edmund Pevensie from C.S Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia (1950–1956)

    Edmund is a pragmatic anti-hero in that he believes that others should receive what they deserve (which makes him unsympathetic at times). He can also be selfish but in the end, he supports his family when they are in grave danger.

    The ’Unscrupulous’ Anti-Hero

    This anti-hero’s motives and intentions are still for the greater good but they are exceedingly cynical as individuals. Their will to do good is often affected by their past hurts and passion for vengeance. Generally, they defeat a terrible villain but they bring this person to justice by being vicious and even enjoying the violence they take out on them.

    This anti-hero’s morals can fall into a grey zone. Despite their good intentions, they are driven by self-interest.

    Matthew Sobol from Daniel Suarez's Daemon (2006)

    While Matthew Sobol does not directly engage in the violence, the machine he created (named Daemon) does. Daemon is essentially an extension of Matthew's psyche and kills Matthew's colleagues, and police officers and makes deals with famous and wealthy people.

    The ‘Anti-Hero That Isn’t a Hero'

    Although this anti-hero fights for the greater good, their motive and intentions are not good. They can be immoral and disturbing but they are not as bad as a conventional villain. This anti-hero almost seems like a villain, but their bad behaviour and actions somehow affect society positively.

    A key thing to note here is perspective: often the narratives heavily lean on the anti-hero's story, allowing the reader to sympathise despite the anti-hero's questionable moral compass.

    Walter White from Breaking Bad (2008–2013)

    Walter White starts off as a good and kind person but then he justifies his criminal actions by telling himself that he is doing it for his family. However, ultimately the main reason he does it is to rebel against his approaching death.

    Anti-Hero characteristics & comparisons

    Anti-heroes often have the following traits:

    • Cynical
    • Good intentions
    • Realistic
    • Show little or no remorse for their bad actions
    • Unorthodox/ odd methods to do things
    • Internal struggle
    • Go against accepted morals and laws
    • Complex characters

    Anti-hero vs villain

    The difference between an anti-hero and a villain is that anti-heroes have boundaries they will not go past when carrying out their actions and also wish to work for the greater good.

    Villains on the other hand have no restrictions and boundaries and only have malicious intentions.

    Anti-hero vs anti-villain

    Anti-heroes may do the right thing but not for the correct reasons. Anti-villains do the wrong thing but their intentions are noble.

    Anti-hero vs antagonist

    Antagonists go against the main character and get in their way. Yet anti-heroes don’t stand in the way of the protagonist and often are the protagonist.

    Famous anti-hero examples

    From Walter White in Breaking Bad (2008-2013) to Tony Soprano in The Sopranos (1999-2007), the anti-hero has become a beloved and complex character archetype in modern media. With their flawed morals, questionable actions, and relatable struggles, anti-heroes captivate audiences with their depth and complexity. But what makes the following examples of anti-heroes truly compelling?

    Anti-hero, a futuristic hero flying through the air, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Heroes come from many different backgrounds and perspectives which may make their actions seem anti-heroic.

    Robin Hood from Robin Hood (1883)

    Robin Hood is a classic anti-hero: he steals from the rich to help the poor. As a result, he is doing good by helping the oppressed but also doing wrong by breaking the law.

    From the five types of anti-heroes above, what kind of hero do you think Robin Hood is?

    Severus Snape from the Harry Potter Series (1997–2007)

    From the very first book, Severus Snape is portrayed as a moody, arrogant, horrible man who seems like he has a personal problem with Harry Potter. Snape is also the complete opposite of Harry Potter. He seems so bad that until the final book Harry believes Snape still supports Lord Voldemort. However, as Snape’s backstory is revealed, readers find out that Snape has been protecting Harry all these years (though his methods seem contradictory).

    Severus Snape would be classed as the 'Reluctant anti-hero,' one of the main reasons being that only Albus Dumbledore knows the strong morals Snape holds to do good. Snape doesn't actively show his true intentions in public.

    Batman from the Batman Comics (1939)

    Batman is a vigilante hero who does good but at the same time defies the laws of Gotham city. What makes Batman an anti-hero, even more, is his backstory. Batman helps the citizens of Gotham city due to his emotions about his parents’ deaths.

    The storyline of Batman has changed over the years but early editions show him carrying a gun and killing people that he believed were wrong; this would make Batman a pragmatic anti-hero.

    Han Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

    In the beginning, Han Solo is a mercenary motivated mostly by personal wealth. He agrees to help free Princess Leia because he will get a large reward as promised by Luke Skywalker. But, Han decides to leave and not help in the fight against the Death Star when he believes the Rebel Alliance has been destroyed. After leaving, however, he comes back during the Battle of Yavin after changing his mind (making him a 'Reluctant hero'), which allows Luke to destroy the Death Star.

    Michael Scott from The Office (2005–2013)

    Michael Scott is a very unconventional boss; rather than making sure his employees get all their work done, he gets in their way for attention. He also distracts them so they can focus on him for validation, and he even does things that eventually cause harm to his colleagues. However, while Michael Scott can be selfish and very rude, he genuinely cares for his colleagues and this is presented when he fights for the job security of the employees who work at Dunder Mifflin.

    Michael Scott would fall in the 'Antihero that isn't a hero' category as despite his inappropriate jokes and actions he ultimately wants his colleagues to be happy. The audience also feels sympathy for Michael Scott due to his lack of friends and his experience of being bullied in his childhood.

    Sherlock Holmes in The House of Silk (2011)

    I think my reputation will look after itself," Holmes said. "If they hang me, Watson, I shall leave it to you to persuade your readers that the whole thing was a misunderstanding."

    The quote above presents Sherlock Holmes’ position as an anti-hero: despite his outward appearance and reputation, some may perceive Sherlock Holmes in a negative way so he entrusts Watson to clear his name. When Sherlock Holmes takes on a case it isn't because he wants people to know who he is, it is because he wants to solve the case. As a result, he does not care about his reputation when working on a case.

    Therefore, while Sherlock Holmes may have a bad reputation, he solves cases for the good of people no matter what the outcome is making him an anti-hero.

    Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby (1925)

    It was James Gatz who had been loafing along the beach that afternoon in a torn green jersey and a pair of canvas pants, but it was already Jay Gatsby who borrowed a rowboat, pulled out to the Tuolomee, and informed Cody that a wind might catch him and break him up in half an hour.

    I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then. His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people — his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all." (Chapter 6)

    Jay Gatsby wants to see himself as a hero so bad that he renamed himself, Gatsby, at one point in his life. He also did not associate himself with what he considered unsuccessful parents. He dreams of rising through the classes and attaining wealth is achieved by breaking the law. Despite his motivation for greed, the narrator encourages the reader to like and sympathise with Jay Gatsby due to his need for people to like him.

    The narrator plays a huge role in presenting Gatsby as a hero, but ultimately by the end of the text, he is an anti-hero as his illegal business deals are revealed.

    Anti-Hero - Key takeaways

    • Anti-heroes are flawed and complex protagonists who do not have the typical characteristics of traditional heroes.
    • Anti-heroes have dark sides, hidden secrets, insecurities and maybe even a flawed moral code, but ultimately they have good intentions.
    • The different types of anti-heroes are the classic anti-hero, the reluctant anti-hero, the pragmatic anti-hero, the anti-hero that isn't a hero and the unscrupulous anti-hero.

    • The difference between an anti-hero and a villain is that anti-heroes have boundaries they will not go past and also wish to work for the greater good.

    • Anti-heroes may do the right thing but not for the correct reasons. Anti-villains do the wrong thing but their intentions are noble.

    Anti-Hero Anti-Hero
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Anti-Hero

    What are examples of famous anti heroes in literature?

    Some famous examples of anti-heroes from literature include Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby (1925), Severus Snape from the Harry Potter Series (1997–2007) and Sherlock Holmes in The House of Silk (2011).

    What is an anti hero?

    Anti-heroes are conflicted, flawed, complex protagonists who do not have the typical virtues, values and characteristics of traditional heroes. Though their actions are noble, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they take action for good reasons like conventional heroes. They have dark sides, hidden secrets and may even have a flawed moral code, but ultimately try to do good.

    What makes a good anti hero?

    An anti-hero is an ambiguous protagonist with a dark, complex side. Despite their questionable moral code and previous bad decisions they ultimately have good intentions.

    What is an example of an anti-hero?

    Examples of an anti-hero include Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby (1925), Walter White in Breaking Bad (2008-2013), Robin Hood from Robin Hood (1883), and Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series (1997-2007). 

    Is an anti hero still a hero?

    Anti-heroes lack the qualities and traits of traditional heroes like morality and courage. Although their actions are noble, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they act for the correct reasons.

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